Sunday 18 August 2019

Wendy Grace: 'Women have a voice in the elections, but only if they say the right kind of things'

Many women lead fulfilling lives in the home - but their views don't fit with modern feminism, writes Wendy Grace

'Take for example the reality that for many women, happiness and fulfilment is found in caring for children at home, rather than in paid employment' (stock photo)
'Take for example the reality that for many women, happiness and fulfilment is found in caring for children at home, rather than in paid employment' (stock photo)

If you were hoping that the European elections would have been a chance for female politicians and women's interest groups to represent the rich tapestry of women in Ireland today you will be sorely disappointed. Instead, there is a collective delusion that somehow women's equality will be achieved by promoting women who must conform to a rigorous set of parameters on various issues often at the expense of ignoring some women's views.

Take for example the reality that for many women, happiness and fulfilment is found in caring for children at home, rather than in paid employment. This fact is seen as a ''punch in the gut''. At least that's how Dress for Success founder Sonya Lennon recently described the findings of a SOLAS report which showed that two-thirds of women working in the home are happy with this choice, and that, brace yourself, even those with significant earning potential and qualifications don't want to return to the labour force. Surely these self-proclaimed champions of equality would be energised knowing what women's desires are, and would use their significant influence and resources to fight for a society that reflects the diverse needs of Irish women?

Yet those involved with the report at its launch, and subsequent interviews, did everything they could to wrap women on the knuckles for giving a response that didn't fit in with their current narrative. A discussion during a 25-minute interview on RTE Radio 1 was indicative of much of the analysis surrounding the report. This involved four women - none of whom represented the majority; women working in the home who like it that way - focusing their analysis on how to get more women into the labour force while subtly yet consistently devaluing women who take another path.

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One of the most telling moments in this interview was when one listener texted in about how fulfilled she was to be at home and not missing out on the short and fast years of her children growing up. She asked the panel: what was the point in having a successful career if you never saw your children? Suddenly these verbose and passionate women fell silent.

So perhaps various interest groups intent on representing only a certain proportion of women might be tone deaf to the majority. But surely experienced and budding politicians would see empowering all choices as a great election platform?

Aspirations like ending the financial punishment of those who work in the home to the tune of thousands of euros each year, or providing better recognition and financial support for all childcare choices, whether its a parent at home, working part-time, or a child full-time in creche. How about campaigning for real pathways for women who take career breaks rather than pathetic ''returners schemes'' that are mere window dressing and rarely provide real opportunities for women? What about creating a work culture where senior positions for those who want to work part-time are possible, and viewing mothers looking after their children as equally as valuable as a CEO?

Scouring the list of 560 women out of 1977 local and European election candidates, there's lots of regurgitated party manifestos displaying their shallow understanding of equality, limiting it mostly to funding institutionalised childcare and workplace participation - because now a woman's voice only matters if it's raised in a boardroom, and her value is linked to the title on her business card.

I hoped the ''Feminist Manifesto'' from the National Women's Council of Ireland - which receives the majority of its funding from the taxpayer - would give me some inspiration.

With a claim stating that they are the "leading nationally representative women's group", surely this would be an inclusive piece of literature? Sadly, their view of "feminism" was entangled with abortion and once again this lobby group, like so many others, seemed only interested in pushing a particular agenda rather than making any effort to represent the differing needs and viewpoints of Irish women.

For the NWCI I'm not the right type of ''feminist'' because I don't think abortion should be conflated with equality and although I'm a working mum and I will fervently support things like flexibility, equal pay and women being valued in the workplace, I am just as passionate that those working in the home should be equally valued and championed. Yet these women and their rights don't even get a mention.

I got in touch with a number of female election candidates who take an alternative opinion on a wide variety of issues, the ones who go off script on what the new orthodoxy have decided is an acceptable viewpoint on any given issue. These women who dared to go against the status quo have been met with a lack of support and even negativity from groups claiming to fly the flag for more female participation in politics.

One local election candidate in Galway, Emma O'Connell described her experience of being met with hostility and aggression: "Recently the Feminist Society in NUIG were hosting a Women in Politics debate which they withdrew from hosting simply because I was involved, and I am pro-life. They actually attempted to have me disinvited.'

Another local election candidate for Carlow, Helena Byrne, found herself feeling like an outcast at a ''Women for Election'' event when she dared to voice her pro-life views. She was rounded upon like a pariah. But why? Helena is a woman for election and her view represents one in three women in this country. I thought the hashtag was #more women when it came to candidates?

It seems groups like these only want more of a particular type of woman to have any voice in the public square. So ladies, you can't have a seat at the table if you don't fit into a restrictive and prescriptive understanding of what it means to be a feminist. Get out there and work in a job you might not even like, to pay the creche fees and the mortgage, now you're winning, you're in the labour force, it's equality sweetheart. And if you dare espouse an opinion that might be viewed as even mildly conservative the witch hunt will be on.

The consequences of this stifling groupthink will be truly devastating. Women with any sort of divergent view will be silenced - only the needs of some women will be fought for, and many will be left behind. Only women operating within the boundaries set by this new wave of faux feminists will be promoted. Who needs to worry about the patriarchy keeping us down when the matriarchy is doing just as good a job.

Sunday Independent

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